I’ve wondered for some time why and how smokers became pariahs so quickly and so substantially. We see them standing, lonely and separated, hunched against buildings probably within which they work. They may have a colleague at their side, but they are banished nonetheless.
It wasn’t many years ago that a majority of the population smoked. In the 30′ 40’s and 50’s, movies included repeated sequences of actors “lighting up”. It was de rigueur. It was chic and socially “smart” to smoke. Each brand of cigarette sought to give its user some defining sense of self. A long cigarette with martini and pearls, or a Marlboro Man….your choice.
Now, in the last decade, that image making has been obliterated. For those of us who did not smoke, the change was glorious. No more smell, no more hand waving. We marvel at what we endured as non-smokers. How and why was it so suddenly and effectively snuffed?
We knew for decades that smoking was unhealthy. Skull and crossbones on the packaging! Yet they persisted. The tipping point, I believe, was the image and consequences of “second hand smoke”. (remember the image of smoke curling upward through floors and ducts to spill upon a sleeping baby?) Only when the smoker became an “environmental hazard” did the tide really turn against the smoker. To this day, I am not sure that such claims have thorough credibility. I suspect most current adults were raised in households where both parents smoked. Air pollution was worse, and yet most of us do not have lung problems. But still, I think it was the “second hand smoke” issue that was the undoing of the smoking class. They became symbolic of the wide range of “polluters”. They were living industrial smokestacks. They were living, identifiable litterers. The abstract of pollution and polluters was suddenly manifested!
This personification of pollution was the smoker’s undoing. Killing yourself was one thing. Killing me and my family was another. Here was a case of the government at the behest of environmentalists, with the aid of advertisers creating a simulacrum that paid off. The Killer Smoker. The Purveyor of Second Hand Smoke! We turned on them like jackals. From the home to office to the nightlife….all indoors was out-of-bounds. Even outdoors had its limits. Don’t smoke upwind. Even the bastions of Europe, cafes and bars, are beginning to tumble.
It was a powerful and rapier thrust. Such rapid and almost total change of a pervasive social mode is hard to remember anywhere else. Imagery more than science made smokers the pariahs they are today. The zealots of environmental issues were completely successful here. They crushed the enemy. They wish they could crush industry in a similar manner. Cigarettes yesterday, coal tomorrow. The value of the smoker as pariah, the lonely figure huddled in the alcove, is valuable in its imagery. It gives visual immediacy to the abstraction of pollution. The environmental purists need that lonely smoker huddled against the building. It shows you what they can do. It shows their power. It verifies their threat. (the frying pan image of the sizzling egg…”this is your brain on drugs” did not work nearly as well)
The lonely smoker is the recurring billboard image the environmentalists dearly want. I am not denigrating what has happened. As a non-smoker I applaud this success. Here, I merely point to the fact that the success of this change is based more on image than on science. It would not have come about on medical science alone. It was the change of an image. A smoker went from bon vivant to killer in a matter of years. That’s the power of a script! That’s the power of a narrative! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!